Ground-up meets top-down on HuffPost spinoff

Late last year we told you about the Networked Journalism Summit, a smattering of industry influencers stewing over a functional juxtaposition of citizen and traditional journalism.

The Huffington Post has spawned just that with a new election-season special, Off The Bus, a mash-up digest of feature articles, opinion pieces, polls and videos solicited from a gamut of trad-pub newsies, grassroots bloggers and distributive data journalists. Since its September launch, Off The Bus has been among the most comprehensive pools of election fodder available on the Web, sifting hundreds of daily submissions for insightful “ground-level coverage,” as they describe it, of the 2008 campaign season.

It’s much more than an aggregator, and this side project has a few notable spin-offs of its own. The Polling Project digs behind the numbers blindly guiding our spoon-fed MSM election coverage, encouraging pollees to spill the beans on that dinnertime courtesy call. Also on deck: an interactive map plotting campaign contributions by race and zip code, and an insider exit-poll forum hoping to woo staffers of losing campaigns.

We sat down with Off The Bus editorial coordinator and USC Annenberg professor Marc Cooper to learn more about those projects, and how the offshoot has panned out since its launch.

OJR: How did you envision Off The Bus and these side projects working when they started out a few months ago?

Marc Cooper: Well, it was originally envisioned by Jay Rosen at New York University. He formed a partnership with Ariana Huffington to create Off The Bus. So Off The Bus is hosted at Huffington Post, and it’s called HuffPost’s Off The Bus, but it’s actually a non-profit organization,, that’s legally based at NYU. It started in September, and I think the idea of it was to see what kind of ideas you could have. That is, it didn’t have a rigid and dogmatic formula. The idea was, how could you use the net and what’s been learned so far about online journalism to further the notion of citizen journalism as applied to campaign ’08.

And that meant a couple things: We knew that we wanted to create a publishing platform that would be, in a sense, an online journal of reporting about the campaign, in which there would be space for individual voices to emerge; reporting done by people who weren’t on the campaign bus. Which is a very broad category, because only a few people are on the bus. So it’s almost everybody else available. And that also meant to explore to what degree we could utilize these emerging methods of distributive reporting, or as some people like to call it, posse journalism. And those of us who are on staff really went into this with an open mind to see what that meant. We still don’t know. We’re still experimenting every day. And we’re learning a lot.

OJR: What have you learned so far?

MC: What we’ve learned is that in order to create this new type of citizen journalism, to make it work, you really have to combine the best of the old and new media. They overlap. At Off The Bus, unlike certain blogs, we believe in the traditional standards of journalism that are taught, for example, at Annenberg. But we also believe in the empowerment of individuals and select groups that the Net provides. So I think, modestly, we’ve been fairly successful in our first couple months in achieving some of that balance.

OJR: But it’s not an open forum.

MC: No, it is absolutely not an open forum.

OJR: How do you get the word out there about Off The Bus and encourage people to submit?

MC: Well that’s easy, because we’re connected to the Huffington Post. So whenever we want, Arianna can put a call out on the front page of the Huffington Post and hundreds of thousands of people will read it. So when the first call was put out, we got something like 1500 people who said “I want to do something.”

Now, what happens is implicit in your question. A lot of people assume, “well, you can just blog.” Well, you can go to if you just want to start a blog. Starting a blog is something you can do in 10 minutes. So we’re not an open forum. We are a hybrid of the the traditional editorial hierarchies with the bottom-up element of the new media.

OJR: So how do you screen the submissions?

MC: There’s really a few categories of people. There’s individuals who emerge from that initial stew of 15 hundred people who are either undiscovered; they’re just people who do not make their living from writing but who have always kind of wanted to be journalists, and are out doing journalism, simply put. Not many. Because journalism is a lot harder than it looks. So a lot of people would like to do it, but they don’t know how. And they can’t learn.

The most common submission we get are kind of bloggy opinion pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what we do. I mean, we do run pieces that are opinionated, and we do run some pieces that are really kind of opinion pieces, but high quality. But the most common reflex among most people is, “oh yeah, I know how to do this. I’ll just sit down and write a long screed about why I love this candidate or hate another.”

OJR: And those, by and large, are from the people who have no professional journalistic affiliations?

MC: No, they’re not professional writers. Those are not of great interest to us. But there’s a handful of individuals who have emerged out of nowhere who have turned out to be great citizen reporters. I’ll refer you to one you can look up: Mayhill Fowler. I don’t know Mayhill personally. I believe she has aspirations of being a fiction writer, but she’s not a journalist. But she’s a good citizen journalist. Her individual reporting has been great.

Then there’s a sub-category of folks who know how to write, but they’re not journalists. They may be professors or lawyers, and they’re kind of experts in their fields and have been able to apply their expertise as kind of analysts of what’s happening politically, with some reporting.

The next category of people that we’ve recruited as individuals comes from the realization that while we’re a project of citizen journalism, we didn’t invent that. Citizen journalism in some form has been around for about 10 years now, along with the Internet. So we learned early on that it would be good to recruit people who were already doing this, but weren’t getting much notice. So we’ve had some success in that realm. Very specific cases out of Iowa and New Hampshire; people who already have their own websites.

They come from diverse backgrounds. One of them is actually a former journalist. Some of them I have no idea what they do, but they do these political blogs, and we’ve kind of adopted them. And we’re either cross-posting with them or they’re writing for us. That’s the second category, and that’s been very interesting.

The third category is real, live distributive journalism, where we have found that while a lot of people can’t really be reporters — they don’t have the time or the skill — distributive research does work. So for the last two months, we’ve done maybe six or eight pieces that were very complicated to do in which 30 or 40 people participated. A couple of those pieces we did in collaboration with WNYC in New York, who helped us put out the call and recruit people out of their audience. We did a story that was kind of a snapshot of the Obama campaign from across the country on one weekend. Twenty-four people participated in it. We did another one that was an analysis of the ground organizing capacity of the Edwards campaign. We did another piece last week that tried to answer whether the fatigue of George Bush would lead to a big wave of voter turnout of Democrats in the caucuses in Iowa. So sometimes we have these teams of people who are analyzing data, and sometimes they’re actually being reporters. They make phone calls and compile their 50 interviews.

Then our process is that the grassroots people, if you will, do the initial work, then it goes to a second level; to people on our staff or contracted individuals who have some higher level of expertise. The kind of collate and edit the material. And then that’s handed off to a writer who has more experience. And those writers are still kind of citizen journalists. In one case, we had a piece written by a young guy who runs a website called the Iowa Independent who’s on some sort of stipend from a foundation to learn this stuff. So he’s doing this kind of daily journalism, even though it’s at a citizen level. We had another piece that was written by a grad journalism student at Yale who is the editor of some publication there.

OJR: And do you recruit those people as well, or do they kind of come forward on their own?

MC: It comes both ways. We’ve had both.

And then for the Polling Project, there’s about a dozen major co-sponsors who are cross-ideological. Some are conservatives, some are liberals. We have the Concord Monitor, we have InstaPundit, which is on the right, Talking Points Memo, which is on the liberal side, et cetera. With their help we put out a coordinated call out into the ether, asking as many people as possible to click on the common form.

OJR: Is that the form that’s on the site now?

MC: Yep. And ask them a half-dozen questions about polling. And I think we had 300,000 hits on the page. We didn’t have 300,000 responses, but I think we got a couple hundred responses. And we’re in the middle of that. We’re going to put out another call in the next week, and then see how much data comes back. On this second call, I think we’re going to look for people who have had specific contact with push polling. We’ve gotten some responses from people who have been push-polled. Now we’re going to try to take it to another level and see if we get more on push polling. And as part of our partnerships with these co-sponsors, we’ve agreed to share the data with them.

OJR: And what do you do with that data once it’s compiled?

MC: To be perfectly frank with you, we haven’t even crossed the bridge yet of what we’re gonna do with the data. I don’t know that Off The Bus will do anything with the data. We may share it with other folks and let them use it the way they want. Or we may turn some stories out of it. We’ll have to see what’s there first. We don’t know what kind of end product we’re gonna end up with; that’s what makes this fun.

OJR: What have you learned so far?

MC: What we’ve learned is that both sides of the debate over old and new media have been right, and you have to find the right hybrid. Anybody who believe that this is just a platform that can be used like any other platform is wrong, because it has its own characteristics. And the distributive aspect works. We’ve seen it. So we know that you can multiply, or amplify, your resources and amplify your power of reporting and researching through the use of the internet in a way that was not possible before it was invented. On the other hand, it is true that you cannot produce good journalism without people who understand reporting and writing and news judgment and editing and all that kid of stuff. So it’s a very interesting

OJR: For the Polling Project, are you going in with some sort of hypothesis?

MC: No. I will tell you straight-up that we have no hypothesis, and we’ve had no preconceptions. We just know that people are being polled, and we assume there are some stories there. We don’t know. We don’t have an agenda.

OJR: So the outcome will determine what you do with the data.

MC: Absolutely. Like when the Federal Contribution Reports came out, we didn’t know what we were gonna find. We put these data teams on it and we found all kinds of things.

OJR: You mentioned that some other Off The Bus projects are in the works?

MC: Yeah, right now we’re working on a story that we’ll call The Color Of Money, which is going to be an ongoing project. We haven’t even built the page for it yet, but we want to do an interactive map that will break down fundraising or contributions by zip code and by race. So you can see really kind of the racial breakdown; from where money is raised and from what zip codes. And that will be an Off The Bus project.

So we have the Polling Project, we have that one, and then there’s actually three stories that are being worked on by distributive teams right now about Iowa. We don’t want to say what they are, but we’re working on them. But at any one moment we have a core group of 25 or 30 people who are always ready. People like it, because it only requires an hour to an hour and a half of their time during the week, and they feel like they’re really contributing something. And they are. Everybody’s putting together a little piece of the puzzle, and it’s kind of fun to see the picture come together.

OJR: When you put the calls out for the Polling Project, are you noticing significant traffic spikes right away?

MC: Yeah, the traffic spiked pretty quickly. Let’s see, it’s been 21 days since we launched it. We got about 100,000 hits in the first week, I think. And it’s still running at about 5 to 8,000 a day.

OJR: Any idea where those hits are coming from?

MC: No, it’s pretty viral. It’s on several sites, so I can’t tell you the number of referrals from each site. But it’s coming from everywhere.

OJR: So you said this next phase of the Polling Project will focus on push polling. Will you alter the survey that’s currently up?

MC: We might. We’re going to figure that out in the next couple days. We might alter the survey a little bit, and the call will also ask for that. We’ll probably have Arianna do the call. She has a big audience. We’re going to do the Polling Project for another week or two. We intended it to run about a month, so it will run until about the middle of January, and then we’ll see where we’re at. But we don’t know, you know? One thing leads to another.

For future projects, we’re also thinking about an “exit page” for next year. Not too long from now—probably about February—we’ll know who the two candidates are. So all the other campaigns will have shut down. So there’s gonna be a lot of laid-off campaign workers. We want to start collecting those stories. We want to give them a place to give the pillow-talk, inside stories.

And we’re also thinking of doing a big national project—like the Polling Project, one with lots of partners—on, whoever the candidates turn out to be, kind of a “did-you-go-to-school-with?” And it will be a little harder to do that, of course. But did you go to school with Hillary Clinton, or whoever the candidate is? You know, “do you know this person, and what can you tell us?” So we’re thinking of doing that, as well.

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.